..then head to Vendicari Nature Reserve, preferably in the winter months. Obviously, I am talking about the winged variety here and you don’t have to be an avid bird watcher to get excited about seeing herons, cormorants, spoonbills and flamingos. If you are like me, you will come away not knowing half of the birds that you have seen but feeling that you have seen something special and watching the starlings swarm through the sky as the sun sets adds to the experience.
We headed there one glorious afternoon in December. As we hadn’t yet been to Marianelli beach we decided to park there and walk along the coast to the bird observation points. It was 17c so we had hoped to have a winter dip in the ocean but it was a little too rough to do that, plus there was a little too much seaweed in the water at Calamosche. Instead, we searched among the driftwood and enjoyed the sound of the sea battering against the shore.
We arrived at the first bird hide as the sun was starting to set but because I was able to see some flamingos in the distance we carried on walking to the next bird observation point despite the setting sun. We were not disappointed. As light faded, cormorants and starlings flew above our heads. We saw countless herons of many types, spoonbills, hundreds of cormorants and flamingos. We marvelled at the number of birds including those we knew nothing of, completely forgetting that we had a fair distance to cover to get back to the car. Eventually, we pulled ourselves away and started to walk back.
It was then that we realised just how low the sun had sunk and how little time we had to get back to the car. So we marched as fast as we could back, with each step it became darker until the dusk had turned into night and we were half way back and in complete darkness. The bright moon of previous nights had yet to make an appearance. The path was rocky with plant roots ready to trip you up at any moment. I used the light of my phone to find our way. Every now and then we would hear the sound of some small mammal or reptile in the bushes which together with the sea bashing against the rocks added to the spookiness and fueled my ever vivid imagination. The hardest part was locating the entrance to the path from the beach but we eventually made it in record time for we had not once dropped our fast pace.
Next time, we’ll go back in the morning when we will have a full day of sunlight and more time to appreciate the birds that migrate there and perhaps, without the low light we will be able to take better photos.
‘Hmmm….’ the Parco Del Etna guide looked us up and down, ‘…………..they are walking shoes, not boots and have you got anything warmer it can get cold up there’. My partner and I looked at each other and promptly decided we would be fine as we had used the same shoes in Iceland where there are far more volcanoes, we had warm clothes in our backpacks (which in the end we didn’t need anyway) and that the guide had just felt the need to say something as tends to be the case here in Sicily. Someone is always there with some unwanted advice and this was no different. This was confirmed when others joined us and the guide said nothing about their ‘inappropriate footwear’.
Every now and again, the Parco Dell Etna organise walking tours at the weekend. You pay a very small and reasonable fee and you get to discover new walks on Etna whilst learning titbits of information along the way. Finding out about these walks is down to luck as they are not advertised very well and you therefore often come across them by chance, as I did. This one particulary intrigued me as it was a walk into the Valle de Bove or Valley of the Bulls. I have stood at various points and looked down into the Valle del Bove but never have I actually ventured into it, mainly because I had no idea how to get there.
The Valle del Bove is a massive, wide valley that was thought to be created from a collapsed crater. It hugely important as the majority of lava flows from eruptions end up here and the basin is so large that it is able to take all this lava thereby protecting the towns on the lower slopes of Etna – most of the time anyway. When you see it you can’t quite take in how big it is but what you definitely notice is that it is one vast, black expanse of lava. For more information on its formation, click here, it is quite an interesting read!
The weather was perfect on the morning of the walk. Clear blue skies gave us the best view of Etna that we have ever had as we made our way up the winding roads to Rifugio Sapienza. A group of about 20 of us took the cable cars up to a height of 2,500 m. The view of distant mountain peaks and the occasional lake was quite a breathtaking sight. We walked uphill for a short distance before veering away from the main craters and walking to a ridge which overlooked the Valle del Bove. Here, the panorama was something else. Yes, we could see the mainland of Italy to our left but on our right we were also able to make out the Scogliera at Aci Trezza. As we marvelled at the view a cloud of ash blew out of one of the craters behind us.
As we stood on the ridge, I kept looking at the angle of the slope we were about to go down. A steep slope which consisted of volcanic sand. As we started to descend my legs felt a bit wobbly and I nearly lost my bottle but I soon learnt to lean back slightly to steady myself and before I knew it I was taking bigger and more confident steps. The sand was so soft that it went up to almost knee height. Little by little people grew in confidence and soon one or two of them went flying past me. It didn’t matter that we were only wearing walking shoes and not boots as everyone had to stop now and then to empty the sand from their shoes. The changing landscape and views as we made out way down continued to impress as we snapped away with our cameras and phones. Several stops to empty shoes (and boots, I gleefully add) later we arrived at the bottom of the valley where we pearched on some lava rocks and ate something, lamented how we should have brought some wine with us and emptied our shoes again.
The next part of the walk was equally as fascinating as we meandered through the valley past different lava formations, jumping over large cracks and finding a new route around a large rockfall.
After a brief respite we started the climb out of the valley. We had to climb over a few trees which had fallen across the path and the climb was steep. Most of us stopped to take photos of a particulary poisonous mushroom which glowed bright red against the black earth. For me, it was a great excuse to catch my ever dwindling breath. Once we got to the top, we were again met by beautiful views of one of the craters and the Valle de Bove. I managed to appreciate it despite my now wobbling legs.
We then completed our walk passing through a familiar trail and all feeling tired but satisfied with the day’s walk. The only downside was the large amount of litter we encountered at the car park. All those ignorant people who picnic there and dump their rubbish should be hanging their heads in the shame as they are destroying the very nature that the flock to visit.
Not so long ago I was in a lovely little agriturismo looking at a rather tired and messy looking noticeboard. There wasn’t actually much ‘up-to-date’ information on it but I did spot an excursion to a place called ‘Cava dell Carosello’ and it mentioned swimming! Now, I love a bit of – what do they call it nowadays? – wild swimming, that’s it. So, the moment I got home I googled Cava del Carosello and decided that I had to go there while the weather was still hot. Last weekend, I did exactly that and I found a little bit of paradise which for most of the day, my partner and I had all to ourselves.
We started with a granita and brioche in Noto, obviously. I love Noto and I love granita. Not only that, it was Sunday so I could justify treating myself. I think the bar we visited had the longest list of granita that I have ever seen. I had limone (lemon) and mandarino (mandarin) and my partner had fig with nuts and prickly pear. We had a little walk around and took pictures even though we take pictures everytime we go there and must now have hundreds stored on our laptops. Our hunger satisfied, we headed back to the car.
Cava del Carosello is located in the area of Noto Antica. Somehow, I had forgotten there even was an old Noto seeing as the current Noto is pretty old. It is a short drive away from Noto further up the hill and the roads are more than a little bumpy and narrow. The first thing you notice from the car are the ruins of a castle, then you see hundreds of grottoes. It is an impressive site and there appears to be a number of walks in this area, although one walk around the grottoes was closed. We pulled up at the entrance to Noto Antica which is now an archeological site but which is currently completely free to enter. Situated on Monte Alveria, Noto Antica used to be a large walled town until an earthquake in 1693 flattened it and the inhabitants wisely decided to rebuild a little further away. It is a beautiful, peaceful place to walk around and some buildings or parts of buildings still stand amongst the ruins. We didn’t have time to visit it all due to my overwhelming urge to have a swim.
The trail to Cava dell Carosello is signposted off what used to be the main square of Noto Antica. The walk down into the valley is fascinating as some of it is hewed out of the rock. It is rocky and you do really need to watch your footing. There are plenty of good viewpoints into the valley below and scents of wild mint and rocket drifted up to meet us. At the foot of the trail just before the first swimming spot is a cave which might have been a former home of someone or a necropolis, it is the first cave of many. The whole valley is teaming with caves which house former tanneries from the time the Arabs occupied the island. Think, the tanneries of Fes in Morroco, in a series of caves.You can safely visit them and wonder at their construction. They are a little spooky too if you possess an overactive imagination such as I do and enter the darkness of one alone. Further along the valley there is an old mill. This evidently, was an important economic area in the past which until recently was all but forgotten.
The river which flows through this valley was probably once filled with different colours from the dyes used in the tanneries. Now the water is crystal clear and runs into a series of small pools, some of which are large enough to swim in. I must admit it took me quite a while to brave the water initially. This was not because I thought it was going to be cold, I was rather hot after all from the walk and needed to cool off, it was more because I had spotted some crabs and possibly something else crustacean in there. I didn’t mind the black dragonflies which were fluttering around me or the pondskaters on the surface of the water, I just didn’t fancy my toes getting nipped.
I would like to say that when I did finally pluck up the courage, that I gracefully dove in. I did no such thing. More like a bum slide in then sheer panic when I touch something at the bottom which moved (it was just a small rock). The water was certainly fresh but definitely invigorating. We were all alone with the dragonflies, crabs and who knows what else, oh, and an abandoned doll that creeped me out and I am afraid to say I left there. We were later joined by an older couple who told us there was a large waterfall somewhere along the river so we set off to find it. Along the way we encountered yet more dragonflies but this time coloured orange, pink and light blue. We walked past more caves and eucalyptus trees and came across another pool and promptly took a dip. This one was much warmer as it was in full sun, had a few more crabs and some type of fish which must have freaked out when we got in the water.
Lunchtime came and went. Luckily, we had had a granita in Noto because stupidly, we had forgotten to bring anything to eat. Anyway, we were too excited and enjoying ourselves way too much to even think about being hungry. A little further on again we came to another pool. Beyond this, but fenced off, was the large waterfall we had been told about. Although we couldn’t really see it very well. It was fenced off I guess because there was an enormous drop into another valley below. This pool was deeper than the others and not as easy to get out off. It took a bit of bum sliding and more than one attempt. Another couple had got there before us but we hardly noticed them. We enjoyed a swim and some figs off a nearby tree before the wind started to pick up and we decided that it was time to make our way back. The trail we had followed continued on and might be worth exploring but we really didn’t have enough time and as we were in a valley the sun was setting fast. Somehow, we got back up and out of the gorge, faster than when we had come down but I put that down to stopping less to admire the view.
I was a little bit hesitant about going to Lampedusa this summer. The Sicilian island is hardly out of the news as a result of the desperate attempts by migrants to reach Europe and escape their war torn countries. Who can forget the terrible image of a migrant’s body lying on the beach while tourists sunned themselves nearby? How could I justify enjoying myself on holiday when so many were arriving after enduring terrible conditions at sea and probably even worse on land?
Yet, Lampedusa is an island that relies heavily on the tourist and fishing industries. It is a popular holiday destination that thousands of Italians flock to every summer. I was told that I would not even notice the arrival of migrants by boat as this all happened away from the main tourist area. It wasn’t that I was worried that it would spoil my holiday but more a case of was it right to go there? I’m still not sure if we should have, but we did and it is the plight of the migrants that has remained with me.
On our first day we hired a boat and as we were leaving the port we passed the coastguard towing a boat of migrants alongside them. I didn’t take any pictures out of respect. There were about a dozen migrants standing in the boat and the coastguards were beginning to remove their white forensic paper overalls and masks. I have always wondered how strange that must look to them after a long journey at sea. I have thought about them often, about where they are now, what they have been through, what kind of future they might have.
That evening, we saw their boat being towed away and learnt that the captain of a tourist boat had spotted them close to where they had been picked up, in front of the port. He couldn’t believe they had gotten so far with no-one spotting them and he had called the coastguard. I am not sure what I would have done in that situation, I am not sure I would have called the coastguard unless they looked as though they were in need of help. I wanted them to get where they were trying to get to. Maybe they would have voluntarily gone into the port but as many are sent straight back I doubt that. They are sent back if they have papers showing that they are from Tunisia, I think there is an agreement with their government. Otherwise they are ‘held’ in an immigration centre on the island before being processed. That is if they are ‘lucky’ as we heard stories of fishermen finding migrant women at sea and keeping them at home to serve their ‘needs’. I so hope this isn’t true but I would be naive to believe it isn’t. I can’t cope with how depraved humans can be.
There was, and probably still is, a lot of resentment on the island towards the migrants but how can this be? How can people abandon each other, not be empathetic and try to help their fellow man? All of us need to admit that if we found ourselves in the same awful situation that they do that we would try and do everything we could to escape it, to survive and to build a new life somewhere else.
In October 2013, 366 migrants died off the coast of Lampedusa. We came across a memorial garden so that this tragedy would never be forgotten. It wasn’t easy to spot and we stopped there by chance. For every one of the 366 who died they have planted a Mediterranean plant in their honour. It seemed a nice idea. Unfortunately, the plants were not in a very good state and I am unsure as to how many will survive the heat and battering wind that they get there. The weather on Lampedusa can be unforgiving just as the conditions at sea that led to their deaths were. For the plants that were put there in their memory to die as well is just too insulting.
Another, more poignant reminder of the migrants’ sea crossings, is to be found next to the new port. Here you will find what can only be described as a boat graveyard which you can’t fail to spot or be moved by. Hundreds of boats are grounded there, many in pieces or with giant holes, as a permanent reminder of those who have risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to reach the gateway of Europe.
Thousands of migrants arrived when we were staying on Lampedusa, many at night. Italian TV crews were there filming their news reports. On the last day we visited a small cove where the water looked clean and inviting. Instead there was litter everywhere and more disturbingly, and the reason why we promptly left, washed up on the rocks there were clothes and a suitcase.
You can’t escape the migrant story at Lampedusa and nor should we ever try to. Society needs to open its eyes to this tragic situation and face the problems that cause people to become refugees head on. We need to open our arms and welcome them and give them the comfort and hope that they so desperately seek after such a perilous journey. We need to be selfless. We need to put ourselves in their shoes then we might begin to understand and show more compassion.
There is a beautiful Italian film called ‘La Notte di San Lorenzo-The Night of the Shooting Stars’. According to Italian folklore the night of the shooting stars is when your dreams/wishes come true. It traditionally falls on the 9/10th August. This year there will be a supermoon but there is still a good chance of seeing a number of shooting stars. A number of events take place during this time to celebrate the event. Meteor showers over the next few nights extend the period with the peak period for San Lorenzo this year falling on 12th August and then on 18th August Jupiter and Venus will supposedly be shining brighter than normal. It means take your siesta on these hot August days and stay up longer during the night and observe the fabulous night skies. In Sicily lots of vineyards hold events which seems to be a good mix, a glass of wine whilst gazing at the stars and listening to music. To get the best views though I would head to the mountains, Etna, the Nebrodi or Madonie mountains are bound to provide you with the best views or there head to Castligione di Sicilia. We saw a number of shooting stars whilst on Mt Etna viewing the lastest eruption a few night ago so I can only imagine what the next few nights will bring.
I have been waiting for Etna to erupt ever since moving back to Sicily, she has been so quiet lately, yet in 2013 she didn’t seem to stop erupting. My partner came out here before me and kept ringing me to tell me about her activity in December 2013 and January 2014. At one point he said that the windows were shaking and his mother was praying and that she had never sounded so loud. Back in England I felt like I was missing out.
Why would I want the volcano that I live at the foot of to erupt? Well, that’s a good question and one that years ago I would have asked myself. When I did my Geography degree and studied disaster zone management I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live in a disaster prone area but here I am living beneath (actually sort of on) a volcano and in an area that experiences earthquakes.
I have seen Mt Etna erupt before and each time I have to blink and check that it’s real. You can’t fail to be impressed by a display of nature’s great power. Volcanoes create and destroy, whilst their lava flows can claim land and houses they in turn create rich fertile land. Etna has vineyards on its lower slopes and orchards of apples and pears higher up. Etna makes you aware of your own mortality and makes you appreciate your very existence here on earth. I think living with an active volcano explains why many people here seem to live dangerously and without a care. They have a saying ‘In bocca al lupo’ which means in the mouth of the wolf – our fate lies in the hands of others.
On Sunday night, June 15th, after slight strombolian activity from it’s new south east crater in the preceding days, Etna’s activity increased and she put on one hell of a show. In fact, she is still erupting. Our in-laws called us as they have a great view of the top of Etna from their house and we drove straight over there. A block of flats annoyingly blocks the view from our place, go up or down the hill a bit and you can see her clearly. Huge rivers of lava streamed down her side and into the Valle del Bove, an expansive valley on the volcano which contains the lava flow and naturally protects the villages below. It seems to be bottomless holding the lava from eruption after eruption but it is going to have to fill up one day, surely? We watched, transfixed as lava, gases and rocks shot up into the air again and again reaching what seemed from below, astonishing heights. We thought about driving a bit further up the mountain to get even closer but decided we were both too tired and that we would do that another night, we could see the flashes of cameras high up the volcano. I am not sure how long we sat there eating ice-cream whilst watching her erupt but we saw her again last night and she was still going strong. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from an eruption.
My favourite tipple has to be wine, the red variety the most but I am not adverse to a glass or two of white at lunchtime on a hot and sunny day. Therefore, when I discovered that on one weekend of the year vineyards throughout Italy open their wine cellars to the public and celebrate their wines with a host of activities I jumped at the chance of attending an event. As the one in Nicosia was closest to where we live and as we didn’t know much about their wines we decided to head there.
Upon arrival it was immediately noticeable that this was a big operation. I have been to other vineyards to buy wine before but this one looked huge and has a stunning view of Mt Etna in all her glory. A beautiful covered entrance leads you through the story of Cantine Nicosia with pictures and old wooden wine making equipment that has since been replaced with modern technology.Although this was a free event you had to pay 5 Euro for a glass which came in a handy pouch which you hung around your neck. You were then free to taste and drink as much wine as you wanted. We decided to start our experience with a free tour of the cellars. A very informative tour it turned out and a glimpse into a massive wine producing operation where technology means that they have a much reduced workforce. We were told about the whole wine-making process which included being taking into the lab where they had lots of bizarre looking equipment which they used to make sure the wine was top-notch. Seeing the bottles of chemicals actually put me off a bit. After that we headed for the mini wine tasting course.
I had expected the wine tasting course to be the highlight of the day. It wasn’t! Firstly, we had a too long and rather patronising rant, oops I mean sales pitch, from the National Organisation for Wine Tasting. The guy for one spoke way too fast and seemed way too smug. He appeared to inform the room, in one way or another, that he had a higher intelligence than the rest of us lower beings and that due to his enhanced receptors in his brain was able to understand and appreciate wine more than we would ever be able to – unless we took their full course that is! I am sure he would protest this but to me he definitely came across this way. So, we eventually (after about 30 mins) got to do some wine tasting. We were shown how to hold the glass, lift it to the light to check its translucence, sniff it ( a better person would have been able to smell the freshly toasted bread, I couldn’t) and then ultimately taste it. We started with a sparkling wine which was rather nice. We were told that the more bubbles it had the better quality. We moved on to a white, Etna Bianco which to me was very light and then a red, Etna Rosso. I didn’t really get the smell or taste that the man was telling me I should be tasting, smelling so I guess I failed the course. For the first time ever on a wine tasting I didn’t mind pouring the remainder of wine in my glass away either. This is not to say their wines are not good. I find wine to be a matter of personal taste much like art is. Furthermore, they make a cracking Zibbibo and Malvasia. Maybe I was off that day, maybe if I tried the wine again I would like it. Anyway, I couldn’t bear to listen to the expert go on any longer so we skipped the very last bit and probably missed out on a damn fine wine. Next we headed for the minibus which would take us to the vineyards. The view was gorgeous and the tour again very interesting and informative. The vineyards are on the slopes of Mt Etna at the foot of a very old crater. The soil here is very acidic and despite the heavy rain we had had in the morning, it was bone dry. At the vineyard we were also shown the old cellar and wine producing area. Seeing this made me realise just how much they have grown as a wine producing company. I am glad they keep these old buildings as a type of museum, old wooden barrels look so much more appealing than the modern metal wine vats and it seems so romantic to imagine the whole village crushing the grapes with their feet.
After the vineyard tour we headed to the ‘Art & Culture’ area. This was fascinating as local artists demonstrated their talents in Sicilian crafts. There was a guy tapping away at a bronze plate for one of his Sicilian puppets, a man carving a wooden post for a Sicilian cart, a man basket weaving, a painter and an incredibly interesting guy who makes sculptures from lava. All of them were friendly and welcoming and ready to explain their works. Around the corner there were further stalls selling local produce such as goats cheese, marmalade, olive oil and even a Zibbibo granite which was delicious.
What impressed me most about the day was how much effort had been put into it and how well attended it was. There was an abundance of wine to taste, the garden area was beautifully laid out with ornate tables and chairs and there was a whole host of tours and demonstrations. I must admit that out of all the cellars & vineyards in the Etna area this one seems to be better at publicising themselves. Their website and Facebook page is kept up to date which is not always the case with their competitors and they have fully embraced wine tourism, so hats off to them. I’ll be going back to check out their restaurant that’s for sure.
- Always carry a mobile phone with you so that you can make all your important phone calls on route to your destination – you have two hands after all and only need one for the wheel!
- Better still commence driving by sending that all important text message – you can use your knees to steer and you don’t need to see the other cars because you will hear them coming right?
- If you don’t need to make any calls let the spare arm get a tan by sticking it out of the window and waving it around now and then to get some air.
- At junctions be creative and see how many lanes of traffic can be made in a two lane street.
- The slight bump on the car behind and in front of you will aid you and tell you when to stop if you need to get out of a tight space- I wouldn’t bother using your mirrors when you have the handy bumper.
- Don’t worry about double parking, blocking someone in or parking on zebra crossings, in the middle of the road; park whether you fancy and preferably as close to your destination as possible. People will let you know when they want to leave, drive around you etc and you can barely see the lines of the zebra crossings anymore anyway.
- Parking on pavements so that prams cannot pass is mandatory – your four wheels are the only four wheels that matter after all!
- When conversing with your passengers make sure you maintain eye-contact with them and gesticulate widely, other cars will move out of the way if you drift from your lane whilst doing this.
- Use your horn as often as possible especially if someone has had the audacity to stop at a red light or even if someone looks like they are coming to a stop.
- Zebra crossings – what are they for again?
- When driving down a one-way street the wrong way shout loudly and act annoyed at the other car going the right way for slowing you down and blocking your path.
- Remember the more dents, scratches you have on your car the better. They are the new status symbol. In fact, the more damaged your car is, the more you will get admiring nods and glances from your fellow drivers, and new drivers and tourists will know to stay out of your way.
- Push your way onto roundabouts and remember if you nearly crash into someone to scowl at them or avoid eye contact – it is NEVER your fault after all.
- It is ok to tailgate and overtake on or before corners as the person in front should not have been following the speed limit as that’s just a guide, isn’t it?
- If you see someone driving who appears not to be following the above rules shout ‘Where did you get your driving licence?’ loudly while gesticulating wildly with both hands.
Disclaimer: Obviously I don't advocate driving like this and Italy does have sensible road rules which I follow and everyone else should follow. Not all Sicilians drive badly either. However, I encounter all of the above from other drivers on a daily basis. I even get road rage when walking due to some of the actions I see from behind the wheel. I get harassed when stopping at stop signs, red lights, to let pedestrians cross at zebra crossing and nearly every other driver will be on their mobile throughout their journey.I have learnt to wait until you have eye contact with a person driving when crossing the road. My coping mechanism is just to be aware and always prepared for something outrageous to happen. Outside of the cities roads aren't that busy and I find driving much more pleasurable.
On the third weekend in May, Noto holds a festival of flowers which it has been doing for a number of years. Every year they take on a new theme and cover a street called Via Nicolai in a carpet of flowers. This year the theme was ‘Incontro con la Russia’ or An Encounter with Russia which is interesting given the current political situation. Regardless of politics the carpet of flowers was extremely impressive, at 22 metres long it featured 16 different designs representing among others the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Yuri Gagrin, Matryoshka dolls and Russian ballerinas. In this fascinating cultural exchange you will also find Russian artists giving concerts, performances, exhibitions and working with Sicilian artists throughout the ‘Baroque Spring’.